Council on Aging staff members are looking ahead to winter uneasily, remembering last year's long siege of snow and cold, and worrying in advance about the hundreds of senior citizens who struggle to pay their bills, trying to balance heating costs with food purchases and medical bills.
Wednesday, selectmen endorsed the town electric department's proposal that the department contribute $35,000 to the COA's Electric Assistance fund, and added another $5000 to that amount, bringing the total to the same amount as last year.
The Social Services division of the COA takes applications for heating assistance every year, and awards funding to families based on income levels and need.
The COA's board of directors chairman Sonya Walgreen told selectmen the numbers of over-60 residents has increased by 54 percent since the 2000 census, and now stands at about 3000 people.
"Many of our clients are at home," she said, emphasizing the importance of outreach workers in the delivery of services to elders who can't get out.
"We have more than 500 home visits a year," she said. "The fastest growing population of elderly now is 85 and older."
COA director Gale Farrugia said federal fuel assistance has been cut almost in half. "We're very concerned about that," she said. "We're hoping to get more eventually." She noted an average fill up of an oil tank can be close to $900.
The town's social worker Pam West told the board juggling heat, fuel, food, and other costs is a major problem for many elderly residents, with the problems compounded by cold weather. "It's hard for people to understand unless they have been through it," she said. "The $75 for the electric bill might get spent at the doctor's office."
The donation by the electric department is only used for assistance with electric costs; the program has been in existence since 2003. MMED director Gary Babin told the board the department has contributed $255,000 to COA since the start of the assistance fund. Seniors also get help from the state's Self Help fund and from other private donations distributed through the COA.
Anyone needing assistance in paying for heat can call the Council on Aging at 508 261-7368. The process requires filling out a form, and the department has a staff member whose job is related to heating needs. A link to the COA's web site is available on the town web site, www.mansfieldma.com, and notices are also posted on the local cable station.
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